us out of our complacency
By Michael E. Abrams
Our madonna looks out over a still-suffering
world, one in which in the past century an estimated 160 million
persons have died in wars, many of them because they were of the wrong
religion. The terror continues today, and much of it in the name of
This message in the famous painting in Cincinnati,
Ohio, has now been pried out of its dusty camouflage. If what
Rabbi Oirechman tells us is true, it
is a disturbing message. But even if the letters are merely
random, we can learn from them.
The message, as our holiday season
around, resounds for us with the
imperative of brotherhood and of religious tolerance, and carries a
ringing call for the need for understanding. It is indeed a call
to action. The Hebrew inscription tells us that the sources of western
religion are dependent mutual understanding - and that we
should recognize this.
This Hebrew letters, in fact, comes to us in a time of
need. The hunger for spirituality in the world exists alongside all the
innovations of science.
eye of the art
the Hebrew words on the van Cleve painting are seen by the rabbi as "I
am the Lord your
God" and have a provenance as old as civilization, when man first
his hand to the axe, when powers and principalities ruled the day and
the night. Hidden in the folds of the royal blue bodice of the
Madonna, he sees words of a revolution of faith.
"I am the Lord
thy God, which have brought thee out of the Land of Egypt, our of the
house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods before me."
Monotheism, the belief in one God, became the basis
Christianity and Islam. It
both from the despotism of tyrants and the despotism of rampant
Photo Courtesy of Cincinnati Art Museum
letters, even if they are random letters as one art historian
bring with them, in our estimation. the
imperative of religious understanding. The cherries, grasped in the
hand of the child, originally known in lands to the east, add the
aspect of Islamic culture.
Hebrew Bible states in Leviticus - "Love your neighbor as yourself - I
am the Lord."
is quoted in Matthew 7: 12 "Therefore all things
whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them."
(the Farewell Sermon) asked believers to treat others as they,
themselves, wish to be treated. "Hurt no one," said Muhammad, "that no one
may hurt you."
Today we cannot afford a message of
divisiveness, the goal of which would be to compel people to
convert to some preferred religion. That was the path of the old
A new history must be written in brotherhood
understanding because too much is now at stake in our nuclear
When the 33 Chilean miners were trapped half a mile from beneath the
earth's surface, the prayers of the world were heard. The father of one
of the trapped miners said the nights were getting cold as families
waited to hear the news. "But we just kept going, trusting in God that
this would all work out." A miracle is actually mankind in partnership
with God, it is not necessarily a God from a machine in the heavens,
reaching down to interfere in the lives of believers.
There are those whose beliefs are naturally tempered by the
science of the times. We live in an age of cynicism and skepticism,
where we demand proof. Many of these proofs do not stand the test
of time. The rabbi and philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel said
the real question was not whether we believed in God, but whether we
gave God reason to believe in us.
Even Einstein, who did not believe in a personal God, found the time to
reflect on the meaning of existence.
"A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate,
of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant
beauty - it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the
truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a
deeply religious man."
One sees within the face of this bashful madonna and her
child the kind of palpable radiant beauty that reflect faith. It
is not the product of the profound reasoning that Einstein might
prefer. But, after science departs and we are left with the
sparse usufructs of our own existence, challenged on every side by the
byproducts of our nuclear and chemical present, facing the few years of
individual human existence, we can still look to age-old truths
conveyed to us in this Madonna.